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Table for Four

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July 2020

It was an uncomfortable summer day at the beginning of July, and I was starting to regret my decision to walk the half mile from my apartment to the agreed meeting place instead of driving. Taking the car had seemed silly at the time, but with the sun beating down and the air thick with stifling humidity, I wondered why the hell I had bothered going outside at all. I wasn't quite sweating, but if I had to walk much longer...

I swear, if he insists on eating outside, I'll strangle him.

Fortunately, no one was seated in the small fenced-in dining area outside the small cafe; clearly the restaurant's patrons had been wiser than me, taking refuge in the cool air-conditioned space. I pushed open the door, and a small bell tinkled to announce my arrival. The room beyond was dimly lit, at least compared to the blinding sun outside, and before my eyes could adjust to the new space, a familiar voice called out:

"About time, Professor. Over here, over here."

I blinked, looking toward the voice's source, and there he was. I was a bit surprised to see the familiar but unusual hairstyle, three small Dutch braids on the left side of his head, with the rest of his long hair falling loose around his shoulders, and still that ridiculous fake orange color. I made my way between several occupied tables, murmuring apologies as I brushed by the chatting couples, and slipped into the empty seat at my stepcousin's table.

"I thought you'd have done something more practical with your hair by now, Sonoda."

"Hmph," he snorted, arms folded across his chest. "You're one to talk about practicality, Professor. What on earth possessed you to wear a dress shirt on a day like this, and then to take a walk instead of driving over here?"

I shrugged. "This isn't a dress shirt, it's casual."

"Well, I suppose you have a point. I don't think you could get away with wearing that to school. Haven't you realized that you're far too old to be wearing a shirt that tight? And that color, what on earth were you thinking?"

"Purple is a fashionable color for men these days, didn't you know?" I looked him up and down; black skinny jeans, a form-fitting red shirt with some sort of strange pattern, and a sleeveless white jacket thrown over it. "Anyway, you're one to talk about tight clothing, you look like you're heading out to a club after this. I don't remember you dressing like that, is that some weird thing you picked up in France?"

"Ha, at least I'm the right age to get away with it," Sonoda huffed. "You're clearly having a premature midlife crisis at thirty. Or is that thirty-one now?"

"It's thirty, thank you. Don't pretend to forget, you did send me a card at the beginning of the year. Even if it was in French."

"It's the thought that counts," Sonoda leaned forward to take a sip of his drink. Some sort of fruit tea, maybe? I could see crushed strawberries at the bottom of the glass, and mint leaves trapped between the ice cubes.

Just as I was thinking that I wanted whatever that was, a waitress approached, offering a menu. "Welcome! Is this your first time here?"

"It is," I acknowledged, but made no move to take the menu. Instead I gestured toward Sonoda's drink. "I'll have whatever he's drinking. But make mine alcoholic."

The young woman blinked, but quickly regained her composure. "All right, I'll be right back with your order. Are you sure you wouldn't like something to eat as well?"

"No, I'm fine. Just bring a glass of ice water along with it, that will be fine."

"Understood."

Sonoda was eyeing me. "Isn't it a bit early to be drinking?"

"When I'm dealing with you? Never. Anyway, can we skip the rest of the snide comments and get down to business? It's good to see you, and I'm happy to trade insults with you any time, but I'd like to discuss my request before this devolves into the usual nonsense." I reached across the table to grab a shrimp from his plate.

"Hey, if you wanted to eat, you should have ordered your own food."

"Why, when I can just steal yours? Besides, you're the gourmet, not me. If you ordered it, it's probably good. I don't feel like playing menu roulette every time we go out."

"Whatever," he muttered, shifting the plate closer to himself, out of my range. "So, you wanted to hire me for a private dinner? It's not going to be free, you know."

I couldn't help laughing at that. "Of course I know. Nothing is free with you."

"And don't even think of trying to pay me with cafeteria meal tickets."

His lips were curled in a sarcastic smile, but I knew him well enough to understand that he was amused, and making a genuine joke. It really was amazing that this stranger who had become part of my extended family only a few short years ago was so easy to relate to, especially since he was so much younger than me. Maybe we really were similar, both with abrasive, sarcastic personalities that hid a softer side - one that was desperately hidden from all but a select few. Sonoda rarely showed his, and I… well, only Asahina saw it on a regular basis. But Sonoda and I could get together to snark and complain about almost anything, and in its own way, that allowed us to form a special bond that was completely different from what I shared with Asahina. It was easy and comfortable, and had allowed us to become close, even though he had only been a child in middle school when we first met.

A bond built on sarcasm and cynicism. My family would be proud.

Except it wasn't the same as the false relationships they'd formed. Maybe it was because the two of us were, deep down, gentle at the core. The rest of my family - my "real" family, the people I shared blood with - were corrupt no matter how deeply you dug into them.

I couldn't help smiling. "I never understood the meal tickets, to be honest. Was there some sort of black market for Bell Liberty meal tickets that was kept top secret?"

"Heh, I bet you wish you knew."

"Maybe that will be my next project as interim director. I'll abolish the meal ticket system and see if anything changes when the underground market at the school collapses." Honestly, I had no idea if Sonoda was just playing along, or if there was actually something to it. I couldn't imagine why he'd accepted useless meal tickets as currency.

"You'll be sorry when the peasants rise up against you," Sonoda smirked and took a sip of his drink. That prompted me to look around, wondering where the waitress was with mine. I caught sight of her chatting with some customers, but she turned her back just as I raised my right hand to signal for her.

"Oh, stop that," Sonoda grabbed my wrist and pushed my arm back down onto the table. "Don't be a pain in the ass to the wait staff, you know I hate that. Just be patient."

I pulled my hand from his and rested my elbow on the table with a sigh. "Sorry, sorry. I'm a little worn out from walking out in the heat." It was a half-truth, better than an outright lie. Any time I had to discuss my relationship with Asahina, I ended up worried and nervous. It wasn't like me. Or rather, I hadn't been like that before Asahina - now it was normal. At least I'd be able to control the conversation, to reveal our relationship at the proper moment. I could just imagine how my bratty cousin would be amused by it. I'd never hear the end of all the snide comments.

I glanced toward the waitress again. "I wish she'd at least bring the water."

"Well, whose idea was it to go running around outside in the middle of summer?" He took another sip of his drink as if to mock me. "Nice ring, by the way. I don't remember you wearing that the last time I saw you."

Somehow I resisted the urge to move my hand away out of his view. Instead, I tilted my hand, letting the hammered silver surface catch the light. "Thank you, it is a nice ring, isn't it? I bought it as a little gift to myself for taking care of graduation this spring." Somehow my voice remained even though my heart was hammering in my chest.

"Hmph," Sonoda replied.

What the hell was that supposed to mean?

"Anyway," he continued, "tell me more about this private dinner you want me to host for you. You said it was a total of four people, is that right?"

Finally getting down to business. I wasn't sure if I was relieved, or more anxious - it was a distraction from the ring, but would inevitably lead to revealing the identity of my dinner guests. I'd considered leaving that information out during this planning meeting, but it would have to come out some time. Best to just get it over with.

"Yes, it's me, a friend, and his parents."

"A friend, huh?" Sonoda swirled his straw around in the glass. "Don't you mean boyfriend?"

"Don't make assumptions."

"And don't you lie to me. What, were you assuming I would freak out or something? I'm not going to judge you for that." His cheeks colored, just a hint of pink. "A- anyway, I've dated a guy or two in my time."

Interesting. I had my suspicions but I never thought he'd be the one to volunteer the information.

I rolled my eyes and snorted. "Which would sound mighty impressive if your time, as you put it, was more than five years, tops."

"It's quality, not quantity," Sonoda huffed. "Now shut up, or I'll have to downgrade you from favorite cousin to corrupt teacher again."

"Oh? I wasn't aware I'd ever been upgraded."

"Of course, it was after I graduated and I didn't have to see you all that often. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all."

"Well, that's true. As much as it pains me to admit it, the school just isn't the same without your sarcastic voice echoing in the cafeteria."

"Heh, you just miss your special Sonoda bar nights."

"There is that too," I admitted.

"Oh, here comes the waitress. See? No need to harass the wait staff."

The waitress was approaching with my order. Finally. She set down two coasters, then both drinks. It probably would have been smartest to start with the water, but I went straight for… whatever the strawberry mint concoction was called. It was sweeter than I expected, but that was tempered by the bitterness of the alcohol, so it wasn't unpleasant or heavy.

"So," Sonoda leaned closer, grinning, "what kind of food do Yuki-kun's parents like?"

I choked, sending half of what I'd sipped into my lungs and the other half back into my glass. I banged it back down onto the table and pressed the back of my hand to my mouth, eyes watering as I coughed. My chest was burning, the unpleasant feeling of something going down the wrong way enhanced by the stinging heat of the alcohol.

Sonoda just laughed at my suffering. "Wow, that worked better than I expected."

I glared at him with watery eyes, but that only made him laugh harder. Jerk. But at least that spared me the trouble of explaining the situation, though it raised other questions. It took a couple of minutes before I could breathe well enough to speak again, and even then, my voice was little more than a hoarse whisper. "How long have you known?"

"From the very beginning, of course. You remember the party for the Bell One, I'm sure. The two of you were looking mighty cozy when I went out into the courtyard to look for you." He made a face. "If I'd been even a second later, I might have caught you two making out. Gross."

I started to sigh and stopped as my lungs protested with a dull throb. "Who else knows?"

He shrugged. "I can't speak for everyone at the school, you know. I can tell you that the three of us in Durak knew from the start."

"Because you told them." I took a careful sip of water and found it soothing.

"You know Kiyo would have found out eventually. You should thank me, really, he wanted to put some thinly veiled version of the story up on Hocus Pocus for the rest of the students to bet on. I told him that would be too cruel to poor Yuki-kun. And Hayato… well, the two of us couldn't discuss it without confusing him, so of course we had to let him in on it."

I shook my head. "Poor Chiba. I have no idea how a simple boy like him put up with the two of you scheming bastards for three years."

"Scheming? I think you mean charming."

I just raised one eyebrow and took another sip of water.

"Don't give me that look. I could have reported you. In case you forgot, I was still feeling pretty raw from the way you double-crossed me."

"It was for your own good. You were letting your past control your present, and you were going to ruin your own future."

Not that I had any right to lecture Sonoda about that. Or maybe I did, because I knew how destructive it could be to cling to guilt and bitterness. That was one thing my cousin didn't know about me, one thing I'd only shared with Asahina, and only tiny scraps of it with his parents. Maybe I'd explain it to Sonoda one day; he was mature enough now to understand. Hell, if Asahina had understood it three years ago in the school courtyard…

"Right, right," he reluctantly agreed. "Anyway, I'm tired of talking about that sort of thing. Tell me more about this private dinner with sweet little Yuki-kun and his parents." He paused, eyes widening a little. "Oh god, don't tell me you're using this as the opportunity to break the news to them."

"Do you really think I'm that stupid? They already know. We told them the day of graduation. This dinner is for his birthday."

"And they didn't kill you on the spot?"

"Oddly, no, but that's what I was expecting. Asahina's parents are just as weird as he is. I guess it makes sense - his strange personality had to come from somewhere."

"So he's weird and strange, but you love him anyway. Is that it?"

Damn it, I did not want to blush in front of my idiot cousin. "Shut up, Sonoda."

"Touchy, aren't you?" His eyes went to my hand. "So, your little graduation gift there, I assume that's one of a pair, and the other's on Yuki-kun's hand?"

"Of course."

"Heh, really? That's pretty serious. So are you two engaged or what?"

I unconsciously rolled the ring around my finger with the tip of my thumb. "Something like that."

"Lucky bastard," Sonoda sighed. "Do you have any idea how many suitors Yuki-kun had at that school? Even though he was totally oblivious to them, I'm sure you must have realized."

"Of course I did. High school boys are fairly simple creatures. I'm just glad that Asahina never noticed, or he might have felt bad about not returning everyone's affections."

"That would be very much like him," Sonoda agreed. "He's a good boy. A little too good." He didn't have to say for you; that little addition was obvious from his tone.

"He's too good for anyone. Too good to be real." I took a careful sip of my drink, glaring at Sonoda over the rim of the glass as if daring him to say something. "He may have good luck, but I'm the lucky one."

"Hmm, you've really changed." Sonoda's tone softened, holding less of his usual sarcastic edge. "I always thought you were just another rich jerk, someone with a horrible personality because you had no reason to get along with normal people. And honestly, I liked that, because at least you were real - you weren't pretending to be kind or friendly out of pity, the way so many others treated me back then after my father ran off. It was good to have someone I could sit down and complain with, even though you were so much older."

"You could gripe like a champion, even back then." I shook my head, a bitter smile on my lips. I'd never expected such a young boy to even think half the things he'd said when we'd first met.

"Thanks for the compliment," Sonoda nodded in a little mock bow. "But you're different now, and so am I. And I realize that we're still the same, fundamentally. We were both hurt, and holding ourselves apart from others. I couldn't trust anyone. Even you betrayed me. But Yuki-kun…"

He trailed off with a sigh, cheeks pink. "I don't even know what my point is."

"Yes, you do, you just don't want to say something as embarrassing as," I cleared my throat, putting on my best impression of his snotty voice, "Yuki-kun healed my broken heart, and he did it for you too, Professor."

"Oh, shut up," he huffed. "I wasn't aware that you even had a heart."

"I did. Asahina has it now."

"Gross."

"I thought you wanted to discuss the dinner, not snark at each other all day."

"True, but I forgot how much fun it is to poke at you. Everyone else gets pissed. You actually fire back." A smile came to Sonoda's lips, different from his usual twisted grin that punctuated his caustic commentary. It was a genuine smile, the one he reserved for the few people he felt truly comfortable around. I hadn't seen it in a while; well, of course, because he was off studying in France, but even though we were close, it was rare for him to be so unguarded even around me.

A smile like that deserved a similar one in return. I stretched out my arm, touching the back of his hand with the tip of one finger. "Yes, I've missed you too. You're much more dear to me than my so-called real family."

He really was blushing now. "S- shut up. Just tell me what kind of dinner you want."

I decided to spare him any more teasing. "Well, what do you recommend? Asahina's parents are your average middle class couple. I want something that will impress them, but not anything that's so exotic as to be intimidating. It should be familiar, but better than what they'd normally want or expect when they go out."

"In other words, you want me to create something that normal, non-gourmet people would want to eat when they go out to a high-class restaurant."

"Exactly. Classy, not over the top."

"Okay, then, imagine this," Sonoda leaned forward, his laid-back demeanor transformed, eyes shining as he described his idea. "Duck breasts stuffed with a mixture of goat cheese, walnuts, and dried cherries, with a sauce made from reduced champagne. Serve that with some simple roasted vegetables, maybe some sweet potatoes, turnips, other root vegetables, throw in a bit of squash for some variety. Of course, there will be fresh bread and salads - ah, the salad should have more cherries to tie it all together - and then dessert. No, a variety of tiny desserts, all different things, individual little servings that are just a bite or two each."

"Hmm, just listening to you describe that is making me hungry." I reached for his plate again, swiping the last shrimp. He made a face but made no move to stop me.

"I'll just add that to your bill," he decided, sipping at his drink. I did the same, and that seemed to prompt another question. "Oh, but the champagne sauce I like to make is a bit strong. Please tell me Yuki-kun's parents aren't those weird sort of people who hate the taste of alcohol, even if it's just being used to flavor a dish. I hate that."

"Ha, definitely not. As much as it pains me to admit it, his mother can drink me under the table." Which reminded me that my drink was probably all watered down by now after sitting on the table for so long.

"Are you serious? That's terrifying. If this dinner is going to include two heavy drinkers, I'll have to adjust the pricing."

"Just keep it with whatever's normal for a party of four. I can't afford your markup."

"Right, right. Anyway, hurry up and finish your 'lunch' so we can get going. I need to take an inventory of your kitchen and test out the equipment. Then I'll know exactly what I need to bring over for the test run--"

"Whoa," I cut him off, "what test run?"

"You want this to be perfect, don't you? I need to do a trial with your equipment to see what adjustments I need to make to the cooking times and temperatures, stuff like that. And I'd say I want you to try the dishes and see what you think, but I already know what you'll think. They're amazing and you'll love them, of course."

"Of course," I echoed with a smile, and drained my glass. "Okay, let's go."

~~~

"I'm home," I announced to no one in particular as I stepped into the apartment - our apartment now - and kicked off my shoes. Sonoda followed suit, but instead of following me directly to the kitchen, he paused and looked around the living room, arms folded across his chest.

"Hmm, this place has changed quite a bit since the last time I was here. Well, that was a few years ago, but still. It looks like someone actually lives here now, instead of some minimalist showroom. I thought you said you'd never buy a TV."

"Never say never," I replied with a shrug. Truth be told, the only reason I had the stupid thing was because Asahina had started spending more time at the apartment after graduation, and he'd whined about keeping up with his favorite shows until I took pity on him. It wasn't bad to be curled up together on the couch, watching insipid dramas and laughing at the silly commercials that played during the breaks. And though I couldn't understand why Asahina was so moved by the poorly-written, cliche storylines, it wasn't half bad to wrap him in my arms as he sobbed over a ridiculous breakup or melodramatic death. It was even better when he was inspired by the tacky love scenes, especially the ones with obviously fake sex that still seemed to spark his own passion.

"Well, at least you got a nice one," Sonoda nodded his approval, taking a moment to check out the overly large TV. "And there's actually stuff on the coffee table now. I still remember the time you yelled at me for leaving a glass on the table when I got up to use the bathroom."

"That again? I apologized a hundred times, so let it go already."

"I would have let it go, but it looks like Yuki-kun gets special treatment. Is this some sort of photo album? I wonder what's in here…"

My blood ran cold. "Sonoda, do you have any respect for personal things?" I darted around the couch and snatched the book out of his hands.

I'd spent the past few weeks going through the photos on my laptop, selecting and printing the best ones to create an album to commemorate the many dates Asahina and I had shared over the past three years. I normally avoided sentimental things like that, but it was intended as a birthday gift for Asahina, who lived for sappy romantic gestures. I myself had to admit that looking over the pictures and writing captions for each one had been a pleasant distraction, bringing back fond memories of how our relationship had developed.

It was sad that there were so few of us together from our earlier outings. Telling strangers that Asahina was a cousin or nephew I had taken out on a day trip ended up ruining the mood for a while. It was only recently that I'd started to admit that we were out on a date if someone asked. If they didn't like it, tough. Asahina was finally old enough that no one could complain.

Sonoda eyed the album, and for a moment, I thought he might try to grab it out of my hands. "Hmp, personal things, huh? I'm just curious about your odd transformation into a normal person, that's all. You wouldn't leave an album full of questionable photos just sitting out on your coffee table, would you?"

"Of course not, but that doesn't mean I want you looking at them without asking."

"Well, I'm asking now." He held out one hand. "May I see?"

"No. Now get in the kitchen."

I waited until he was digging through the cabinets before I set the album back on the table and joined him. It was true; there weren't any suspicious or objectionable photos in the album, but I still didn't want anyone else to see them, especially with the little notes I'd added to each page.

Our first summer outing. Day trip to Kyoto. Our purchases from the Tokyo chocolate festival. Why on earth did I agree to go to Comiket?

None of the captions were particularly embarrassing, but I just didn't do personal things like that.

I was drawn from my brooding by the sound of banging drawers. "Professor Sakaki, what are you doing over there? Get over here and help me make a list of everything I'll need to bring." More clattering as he rifled through the small collection of pots and pans in the corner cabinet. "Though to be honest, it should probably be a list of what I don't need to bring. That would be shorter."

I joined him in the kitchen, grateful for the distraction. "Is it really that bad? I've been cooking more lately, and I actually bought a couple of new pans the other day."

Sonoda snorted. "This sort of second-rate cookware may be fine for the casual cook, but if you want to impress Yuki-kun's parents, I need quality equipment."

"Please tell me you already have your own. I can't afford to furnish a kitchen with everything to your standards."

"Of course. I pride myself on my fine collection of professional grade cookware. And," he peeked into the flatware drawer, lip curling in mock disgust, "I'll bring over a nice set of silverware and some elegant dishes that will be worthy of my creations."

"You're so kind."

"Hmph." My cousin turned away, busying himself with checking the rest of the cabinets as if he expected to find some hidden stash of expensive cookware.

"Sonoda, you don't have to slam the cabinet doors. You didn't really expect me to have anything that would be up to your standards, did you?"

"You're an idiot," he muttered, still facing away. "It's not about that."

Sonoda was fired up about something, but I couldn't imagine what. Though he was facing away, I knew him well enough to recognize the meaning of his slouched shoulders and bitter tone. Was he really that offended by my refusal to let him look at the album? "Sonoda, that album's still a work in progress, I--"

He glanced back at me, eyes narrowed. "For someone so smart, you really are stupid. You have no idea why I'm pissed off, do you?"

"No, because your moods tend to be arbitrary and I'm not a mind reader. If you have a problem with me, or my kitchen, or whatever else, just tell me. I'm not the kind to be easily offended, no matter how hard you try."

Sonoda finally turned around, one hand on his hip, the other picking at his braids; his usual pose when he was annoyed by something. "Look, you don't even know when to stop joking around and take someone seriously. Let me explain it to you simply so your emotionally stunted brain can understand it. You've been so busy trying to keep your relationship with Yuki-kun a secret, you never stopped to think about how you were affecting other people. Like me."

"You?"

"Yes, me!" He had both hands on his hips now, leaning forward slightly. "In case you forgot, my father ran off - yes, we're talking again, but things are still a little rough. My mother is hopelessly shallow, she doesn't care about anything but the next fancy thing your uncle's going to buy for her, and I'm not especially fond of him either, you know. They don't even know I'm back in the country right now, and I like it that way."

He paused to take a breath, and I fought back the urge to ask just what all that had to do with my relationship with Asahina. No need to throw gasoline on the fire.

"Anyway, as much as it pains me to admit it, I feel like you're my closest family member. Except," he turned his head to one side, avoiding me, "you've been so focused on Yuki-kun that you've become distant too. And Yuki-kun's my friend too." Sonoda crossed his arms over his chest with a sigh. "But the two of you kind of cut me out of your lives by keeping secrets. Even though I knew about it."

Was that it? "I didn't know--"

"Of course not!" he snapped. "That was the point, I didn't want you to know that I knew! I kept quiet so you two wouldn't do something stupid, like slip up and talk to me about it when someone else was listening in. I did such a good job of it that you didn't think once about how your secrets were affecting anyone else."

Sonoda turned away again with a heavy sigh, wrapping his arms around himself "Especially me."

I couldn't argue with his logic. Sonoda was right; I'd been so focused on protecting Asahina and spending time with him that I hadn't had time for anything - or anyone - else in the past few years. Almost every weekend had been swallowed up by day trips and dates with Asahina, even if it was just lying around the apartment, reading or working on things for the school between our frequent visits to the bedroom. Before I'd gotten involved with Asahina, Sonoda had been a regular weekend visitor, coming over to complain about school or his family or whatever else happened to be on his mind that week. Over the past few years, how many times had I lied and said I was too busy, when the truth was that Asahina was coming over instead? I couldn't even remember the last time Sonoda had come over.

And the whole thing with Asahina had started right after I betrayed him. Of course it was for his own good, and he'd understood it almost immediately, but it had still created the illusion that I'd cut him off coldly because of his plans.

I'd gained one relationship and sacrificed another.

Maybe it could be undone. He wouldn't be here now otherwise. Right?

"You're right, Sonoda. I've been a fool." I reached out with one hand, tentatively placing it on his shoulder. He tensed beneath my hand, but made no move to shake me off. He didn't respond, so I continued, "It's true, I haven't thought of anyone except for myself and Asahina these past few years. Not out of malice, I just…"

He shrugged. "It's fine. I think anyone would get lost in Yuki-kun."

"No, it's not fine. It wasn't my intent, but I betrayed you, then cut you off."

Sonoda rolled his shoulder, breaking away from my touch. "It just sucked, you know? I didn't really have anyone else I could trust, and then I was replaced by someone else. Obviously, it's not the same sort of relationship, but still…"

We were both hurt, and holding ourselves apart from others.

He'd said that. But when it came to me, I was actively pushing him away.

"Sonoda, come with me. There's something I've been meaning to tell you."

"Seriously?" He still didn't turn to face me. "Now, only because I complained?"

I drew in a deep breath, wanting to sigh, but I stifled even that. He was baiting me, wanting to spark a reaction, and that would give him an excuse to let out all his pent-up anger. Not that it wasn't justified, but it wouldn't help the situation. "I'm sorry. But yes, I've been too wrapped up in myself to realize what I'd done to you. And this is something I've been meaning to tell you for a while, so will you listen?"

Silence.

I waited a while, then tapped his shoulder. "Sonoda?"

He threw up his hands in exasperation. "All right, fine! I'll listen, are you happy?"

I couldn't tell if he was angry with me, or angry with himself for wanting to hear it despite the circumstances that had prompted my offer. Either way, I'd have to tread carefully. I stepped around him, leading the way back to the living room. "Take a seat on the couch, this is a bit of a long story. I don't think you've heard any of it before, so it will take a while. May as well be comfortable."

My cousin followed me, almost dragging his feet, but I could tell that he was interested. He just didn't want to look interested, because that would somehow translate to letting me win the little battle we'd just had in the kitchen, and Sonoda was a sore loser.

I sat down, and Sonoda joined me a few moments later, though he backed himself into the very corner of the sofa and sat with his legs pulled up, hugging his knees. He looked ridiculous, like a kid trying to put up a barrier between himself and the adults around him, but if that was how he wanted to sit, then fine.

Where to begin? He already knew how awful my family was, having experienced it himself. Sonoda was luckier than he knew; my uncle was, at least compared to my parents, not all that bad at heart, though he did have the typical condescending attitude that often came with wealth. As far as I knew, he didn't do crazy things like throw plates at Sonoda's mother when he was angry, or blame his wife for his own shortcomings, or…

Or shove middle school boys down the stairs.

I shook my head to clear that thought away, and Sonoda sighed. "What, now you're not going to tell me anything? Make up your mind already."

"That's not it. I'm just wondering where to start."

"At the beginning," he huffed.

"We'll be here all day. I'll skip the part about my parents. All you really need to know about them is that they never really liked me all that much, especially once I started taking an interest in other boys." Possibly the understatement of the year, but I really didn't want to go into the details. Hell, the only reason Asahina knew was because he'd worked to pry the entire story out of me a few months back, insisting that we shouldn't have any secrets between us. In return, he'd confessed to eating his eleventh birthday cake, one made specially by his father and hidden in the bakery's storage fridge, the night before his party. The entire cake.

That was his darkest secret.

And he wondered why I always told him he led a charmed life.

"Hmm, that's interesting, so you were like that even back then?" Despite himself, Sonoda was leaning forward, just a bit.

"What's with the like that? I'm gay. The sky isn't going to fall on your head if you say it. And yes, I've known for a long time, vaguely at first, and my parents were able to ignore it for a while. Once I hit puberty, it was a bit more obvious that my father's plans to set me up with the daughters of his business partners just wasn't going to work out. Too bad for him."

"So you've never even dated a woman?"

Normally I would have just glared at him, but since now was the time for honesty, I just shrugged. "Not really. I went out with a female friend of mine in middle school a few times, but that was purely platonic, and I don't really think a trip to the bookstore counts as a date. She was interested in one of my other friends, anyway. Actually, that's what I wanted to tell you about."

"An ancient tale from your middle school days?"

Good, if he was poking fun at my age, then he was warming up to me again. "Yes. Absolutely ancient, over fifteen years ago now."

And so I told him everything about that time, the story of Takuma and Aimi, all the details how Takuma had been snubbed by Bell Liberty to how he and Aimi were married now, with a small but successful restaurant not far from my own apartment. It wasn't just a story; it was a warning, a reminder that staying tied up in guilt and bitterness over the past would suck out your life as surely as any fictional vampire. It was a story that would have meant more if I'd told it three years ago, after Asahina's seemingly impossible victory in the Bell One, but I hoped he could see the value in knowing it, even late.

And anyway, I wanted him to know. He had a right to know why I'd led him on, then turned against him in the end.

Sonoda was quiet after I finished explaining, still hugging his knees to his chest, but he'd relaxed and the pose was no longer defensive. He'd simply found a comfortable position. After a few moments, his arms tightened around his legs. "I never suspected anything like that."

"I never wanted anyone to suspect. The only other person who knows is Asahina."

"You told him after the Bell One, didn't you?" Sonoda's tone was neutral, without any hint of his usual sarcasm. He wasn't angry. My shoulders relaxed, releasing a tension that I hadn't realized had built up until it was finally gone.

"When you found us sitting outside, that's what we'd been discussing."

His lips curled into a smile. "Is that so? I remember that moment vividly even now, and you two definitely did not look like you were discussing a tale of bitterness and woe."

"Well… our discussion started with this story."

"No wonder Yuki-kun got sucked in by you. There's no way he could leave something like that alone."

I closed my eyes with a sigh. It was true. "I just wish I had something more to offer him than the opportunity to patch up an unhappy older man with too much baggage. He's only turning nineteen next month. He's too young to deal with someone like me."

That time, I was the one surprised by a light touch on the back of my hand. "Hey. Don't say things like that. Maybe you're the only one who can't see it, because you've been too busy trying to hide everything, but at least while I was still at the school to watch him, Yuki-kun was obnoxiously happy every time I saw him. You weren't some sort of burden he had to carry. And you were the same, you know. Everyone knew you'd changed, they just didn't know why."

"Sonoda," I opened my eyes and found him leaning forward, eyeing me with an uncommonly serious expression. I nodded; he was right. "Thank you."

"Anyway," he flopped back on the couch, finally stretching out his long legs, "enough of this sappy bullshit, I want to look at your secret photo album. What is it, some sort of love-love record of all your dates?"

I just glared at him, wondering if he'd somehow managed to sneak a look when I wasn't watching, though it was impossible. Sonoda just laughed.

"Are you serious? I swear I was just guessing."

And though everything in me screamed that it was a terrible idea to allow him anywhere near the book, I reached out to take it from the table, holding it with both hands. Considering all the times we should have spent together but didn't, and all the events and outings I'd stolen not just from Sonoda, but from all of Asahina's friends, sharing the pictures would be a small price to pay to begin repairing our relationship.

"I was putting this together for Asahina's birthday. Maybe… you could take a look, and tell me if it's a good idea or not." Damnit, why were my palms getting sweaty? There was nothing that embarrassing in the album. Except for all the stupid captions I'd added to the pictures, why on earth had I done something so pathetic? You'd think I was the lovesick one, not Asahina.

Sonoda accepted the album eagerly. "Ah, don't tell me you really have pictures from all your dates! I don't even need to look at this to know Yuki-kun will love it." He opened it to the first page, with pictures of our first 'date' - though it could hardly be called that, just a visit to a nearby park where we'd walked around awkwardly for about half an hour before heading back, both feeling self-conscious every time someone else happened by, convinced that they suspected that we were together. I only had two pictures from that time, both of Asahina feeding ducks at the pond.

Sonoda flipped through the beginning of the album without comment, then stopped to linger over a spread a few pages in. I leaned closer to see what had caught his eye, but it was just one of our many visits to Aimi and Takuma's restaurant.

"What, are you examining the food?" I teased.

"No," he murmured, running his finger over the page, "this is the first time there's a picture of both of you together. All the other pictures up until now have been single shots, but there's a bunch of couples ones here. Is this your friends' restaurant?" Sonoda looked up sharply. "Don't tell me, they knew all along?"

"They don't know." But to be honest, I wasn't sure. Maybe they hadn't known at first, but we visited so often, surely they suspected something more than the usual excuse of taking a break after working on plans for the school, especially now that Asahina had graduated.

"Hmm, I wonder… you go there often, don't you?" Sonoda was turning the pages again, a faint smile on his lips as his eyes danced over the pages. "Wow, no wonder you didn't have time for me once you started dating Yuki-kun, you guys were all over the country every weekend."

"I'm sorry, Sonoda."

He waved off my apology with one hand. "Apologize after I'm done looking at this. I'm impressed, it looks like you traveled pretty far every weekend…"

"Well, we couldn't stay local, there was always a chance that we'd run into someone we knew. Or encounter some overly curious people who might object to us spending time together." Fortunately, it had only happened once, an older woman who had lectured Asahina about the dangers of 'hanging around with creepy predators' when he'd asked her to take a picture. I didn't have any pictures from that day; her lecture had completely ruined the mood and left Asahina teary-eyed for the rest of the day.

"That's true… and Yuki-kun's parents own that popular bakery by the station, so I bet lots of people in this area are kind of familiar with his face." He flipped a page and let out a harsh laugh. "Professor, did you seriously let Yuki-kun drag you to Comiket, of all things? I can't even imagine…"

I sighed. "You don't have to imagine, the photos are right there. I thought I was going to die in that massive crowd, all those incredibly young people, I felt like a fossil. And do you have any idea what the lines are like?"

"I've heard. And that's why I don't go to stupid events like that."

"You would if Asahina asked you."

He peered over the book at me. "You may have a point."

It didn't take Sonoda long to finish looking through the book; though Asahina and I had been on many outings, I'd taken care to select only the best pictures for the album, which meant that I was left with a bunch of empty pages at the end. The only other comment Sonoda offered was about how much Asahina had grown since the last time they'd seen each other. I'd forgotten that his growth spurt had come in his third year, leaving him nearly as tall as me, and with a body that finally seemed somewhat balanced rather than just lanky. The amount he had managed to eat while growing was horrifying, even to me.

"Yuki-kun certainly grew up nice, didn't he?" Sonoda was grinning as he handed the album back to me. "I guess that was worth waiting for, eh, Professor?"

"Shut up, Sonoda. So, what do you think? Will he like it?"

"If it was just the pictures, he'd like it. But," his eyes were almost sparkling with amusement, "with all your sappy captions, Yuki-kun will absolutely adore it. You should probably add some cute little heart stickers to really ramp up the mush factor."

I glared at him, but the effect was ruined by the fact that I was clutching a photo album to my chest like an embarrassed schoolgirl. "This is exactly why I hate you, Sonoda."

"I love you too, Professor." Sonoda blew me a kiss, laughing.

I barely resisted the urge to throw the album at his head, only because I didn't want to risk ruining my hours of work.